Can IAM Solve Your Privilege Challenges?

Kevin Klitzke

May 26, 2021

Organizational infrastructures continue to grow in intricacy. Factors such as cloud environments, bring your own device (BYOD), and IoT, as well as dynamic technology trends like the pandemic-spurred growth of the remote workforce, have made access management more challenging. With this growing complexity, it is tempting to look for ways to simplify your organization’s access management efforts but approaching it by trying to solve for both privilege and identity with an IAM solution is not one of them.

Some industry analysts argue IAM and privileged access management (PAM) are converging and you can conquer both with just an identity-focused solution. And from a cursory perspective, it might make sense. After all, both deal with users, access, and roles. Despite occupying the same space, however, IAM and PAM are very different. A common platform shouldn’t come at the cost of their unique qualities, and maintaining their distinct capabilities is a good thing for your cybersecurity.

IAM vs. PAM

IAM and PAM should be part of any organization’s cybersecurity framework and digitization strategy, but they deliver protection for different audiences and different levels. IAM focuses on managing general users and identities by controlling their granted access and experience within an application or system scope. For many, this definition may resemble PAM systems, which are solutions that manage access through the control, storage, segregation, and tracking of all privileged credentials.

PAM solutions take security a step further than IAM systems as they enable privileged users by defining, controlling, and elevating the roles of administrative users. IAM systems manage identities for routine access scenarios and can enable and disable access, but they do not provide the same functionality as PAM solutions, including:

  • Discovery and classification of privileged accounts and security groups
  • Randomized, encrypted, replicated, vaulted passwords
  • Auditing and visibility of access activities
  • Session recording 
  • Machine identities (such as services accounts, DevOps)

Just as MFA and SSO are additional layers of implementation in an IAM system, these PAM functionalities grow your access management program through more secure authentication tools and privileged-based features. PAM is the next evolution of your identity governance and management program but not the same as IAM. Defining it as such ignores the importance of privilege in privileged access management. And a convergence of the two forgets that IAM sets the access groundwork that PAM elevates through privilege.

IAM + PAM

PAM and IAM are not the same — but they are highly complementary. Utilizing only one or the other is not as effective, and with just an IAM-centric solution, your organization could ignore the unique requirements a successful privileged access program requires. This reduction can hurt your program by ignoring different scopes and risks, compromising the security and strength of the deployment. Convergence that comes at the cost of the unique and beneficial implementation of both can be detrimental to your access management efforts.

However, a common platform that leverages IAM and PAM’s complementary capacities is powerful when implementing and adhering to the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP). By following the “least privilege” strategy, you can ensure only the right people (who are verified by IAM) have the right level of access to the right systems (governed and managed through PAM processes).

Distinct and Powerful

Building a successful access management program for your organization requires a step-ladder approach. When organizations conflate IAM and PAM access management actions as one-in-the-same, with identity, diminishing the unique abilities of privilege, they ignore the fundamental importance of privilege to elevate your identity access management further. Without the successful groundwork IAM does for your access governance, PAM cannot evolve your identity efforts. By oversimplifying their differences, you dilute the importance of both in changing organizational access hierarchies. A holistic approach that maintains a common platform and overlap between IAM and PAM for synergy while still keeping their distinct capabilities is the best way forward.

The Power of One

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